Drugs. Social issues. Academic issues.
Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman did the research after seeing the negative results of Urban Meyer’s first class with the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2012. He knew the hazards — only three out of the 19 players signed in that class contributed significantly for the Buckeyes.
“By far the most instances of attrition, the most instances of off-the-field issues -- whether it be drugs, social or academic issues -- and the most instances of guys that quite frankly can’t play, happen in the transition year,” Herman said on National Signing Day in 2017.
To press the point further, an ESPN study from 2012 to 2014 found that six of 15 transition classes failed to produce more starters than busts. More than one third of those players ended up leaving the program with which they signed.
So when Herman arrived in Austin in late November of 2016 with just a little more than two months to assemble his first recruiting class at Texas, he knew that he couldn’t take risks. Instead, he took a more “calculated, patient approach.”
“The biggest [issue] being you wind up chasing stars and rankings, rather than getting to know these kids,” Herman said. “A lot of it is because of timing. It’s so hard to get to know them, so I think you’ve got to target kids that at least you know a little bit about.”
Herman had to rely on his evaluations and relationships from his time at Houston because only five pledges in Charlie Strong’s class went on to enroll at Texas.
Nearly a year later, an early evaluation of the class justifies Herman’s approach.
US Army All-American offensive lineman Derek Kerstetter was a prospect the Cougars recruited, but didn’t have a chance to land. When Herman and offensive line coach Derek Warehime arrived in Austin, however, they were able to flip Kerstetter from Oklahoma State. Kerstetter went on to earn the starting right tackle role in the Big 12 opener against Iowa State and never relinquished it. Unless the ‘Horns land a graduate transfer at the position, Kerstetter should maintain that role in 2018.
Just a little more than three years ago, Daniel Young was a linebacker for Texas assistant Corby Meekins at Houston Westfield. After Meekins moved on to join Herman’s staff at Houston, Matt Meekins assumed the head role at Westfield and moved Young to running back.
Herman and his staff took notice of the results and landed Young over offers from Boise State, Minnesota, and Nebraska.
“Daniel Young might be the steal in the class,” Herman said in 2017. “Might be an underrated guy in the class... Here’s the thing again with the rankings and stars. Everybody wants to rank these guys off of their junior film. Daniel’s junior film was good, not great. We went back and watched his senior film in December. Whoa, did that kid not have a fantastic senior year.”
Sure enough, Herman’s evaluation was correct — it took some time for Young to get going, but by the end of the season, he was the team’s top running back, leading the team in rushing and receiving in the Texas Bowl against Missouri. His blend of speed and power set him apart from the other Longhorns running backs.
Texas also flipped linebacker Marqez Bimage, a special teams contributor whose physicality could help vault him into a starting role in 2017, and offensive tackle Sam Cosmi. Though Cosmi redshirted, he drew praise from Malik Jefferson and could be a poor man’s Connor Williams.
Meanwhile, Warehime’s relationships in Oklahoma helped flip tight end Reese Leitao from Nebraska. Leitao redshirted after narrowly surviving drug charges last February, but drew rave reviews from offensive coordinator Tim Beck before the Texas Bowl in terms of his athleticism and upside. A strong blocker who showed his physicality as a defensive end in high school, Leitao impressed Beck with his pass-catching ability.
The other tight end signed in the class proved his value quickly. A lifelong Longhorns fan, Cade Brewer was an outstanding receiver at Lake Travis who earned an offer from Texas when Herman watched him shine in a playoff game as an SMU commit. Until an ACL injury ended his season, Brewer was the starting H-back and an improving blocker.
The staff also lucked into the second-ranked player in the class, running back Toneil Carter, when Georgia didn’t have a spot for him to enroll early. In that instance, Herman’s relationship with Carter’s trainer helped the Longhorns land the nation’s No. 10 running back.
And though Carter’s first season included a suspension for the Texas Bowl, he’s still with the program and flashed his upside at times during the season. Entering the spring, Carter has a chance to challenge for the starting role if he can mature. He’s got some juice.
The recruiting efforts of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando helped land the nation’s top junior college linebacker, Gary Johnson. Slowed by an ankle injury early in the season, Johnson’s hunger and pure speed allowed him to emerge as a starter and key member of the Lightning package that helped the Texas defense take the next step.
Highly motivated to ensure that he doesn’t have to return to small-town Alabama, Johnson is set to emerge as a leader next season and one of the team’s best defensive players.
The latest addition in the class, junior college transfer defensive lineman Jamari Chisholm, also earned a spot in the rotation with a tackle for loss and quarterback hurry and could contribute more next season if needed.
Then there are the holdovers from Charlie Strong’s pledges.
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger is the headliner there who instantly earned Herman’s affection for his maturity. There were ups and downs throughout his first season, but Ehlinger was able to avoid critical mistakes in the Texas Bowl and has an advantage in the quarterback competition this spring because Shane Buechele just underwent surgery to repair his torn abductor/abdominal muscle.
At defensive end, Ta’Quon Graham worked his way into the rotation after the staff fought off late charges from Oklahoma and TCU. With the current depth at the position, Graham will likely have to wait until 2019 to make a big impact, but did have two tackles for loss and a sack in limited playing time as a freshman.
The special teams standout from the group was cornerback Josh Thompson, who battled through a knee injury to become a gunner on punt coverage. Just ask Ray Guy Award winner Michael Dickson about how much Thompson helped him. The Nacogdoches product is also in line to compete for a starting job somewhere in the secondary in 2017 with his special blend of physicality and speed.
So too is cornerback Kobe Boyce, who redshirted as a freshman, but earned praise from Herman before the Texas Bowl as a player who could have contributed were his eligibility not at risk. With all the justified talk about the 2017 defensive back class, don’t count out Boyce.
Despite the praise for redshirting players like Leitao and Boyce, there are still some definite unknowns in the class beyond those two — Cosmi, wide receiver Jordan Pouncey, defensive end Max Cummins, and safety Montrel Estell.
And junior college All-American Joshua Rowland was largely disappointing at kicker this season.
A full accounting of the class won’t be possible until several years from now, but nearly one year out, it appears that Tom Herman and his staff are in position to avoid the typical pitfalls of transition classes.
More than that, the 2017 group is already out-pacing the expectations from when it signed. Given the lack of excitement when the class signed, that’s quite an accomplishment.